Alberta Tory leadership race heats up

The three candidates left on the ballot to become the next leader of the Alberta Progressive Conservatives — and the province's next premier — are wasting no time in aggressively campaigning for new support.

Low voter turnout worries party

Gary Mar speaks to Progressive Conservative Party members Saturday night after finishing atop the first ballot. The second ballot is Oct. 1. (CBC)

The three candidates left on the ballot to become the next leader of the Alberta Progressive Conservatives — and the province's next premier — are wasting no time in aggressively campaigning for new support.

On Saturday, three of the six leadership candidates in the race to replace Ed Stelmach were eliminated from the ballot. A second ballot featuring the top three finishers — Gary Mar, Alison Redford and Doug Horner — will be held Oct. 1.

Redford, who came in second place behind Mar with 19 per cent of the vote, told reporters that healthcare will be a pivotal issue of the next two weeks.

"It's an important issue for Albertans, and they want a publicly funded healthcare system," she said. "I have never deviated from that position."

Redford sharply differs from front-runner Gary Mar, who focused attention on healthcare during the campaign by suggesting Albertans should have more opportunity to pay for health services directly from private providers.

'Not enough listening'

Meanwhile, Mar told reporters the winner of the runoff vote faces a huge task of reuniting the party and engaging not only party members, but all Albertans.

"We've become disengaged with the very members whose support we rely upon to get elected," he said.

"Whether you talk about health care or municipalities or the royalty review, the underlying theme is the government was doing too much telling and not enough listening."

Mar emerged from the first leadership vote in first place with 41 per cent of the votes.

Edmonton-area candidate Doug Horner, former deputy premier under Ed Stelmach, finished third on the ballot with 14.5 per cent, with most of his support coming from northern and rural Alberta.

But despite Horner's strong numbers, Redford said it's now a two-way race between her and Mar.

"For me, I think this is going to be a race between the top two candidates," she said. "But [Horner] has some strong caucus support and strong support in northern Alberta and he's brought some good ideas to the table."

'Fallen off the precipice'

However, the 59,361 who cast ballots were less than two-thirds of those who marked ballots in the November 2006 campaign that lifted Stelmach to the top job.

Tory Party president Bill Smith has said the key figure is the date — the 2006 figure came in winter. In contrast, this year's race comes at harvest time and many of the Tory supporters are busy in the fields, he noted.

The poor showing is disconcerting to a party that has governed for 40 years but slid back in popularity under Stelmach, particularly in Calgary, and now faces a threat on its right flank from the upstart Wildrose Party.

The Wildrose has four members in the legislature — three of whom are disaffected floor-crossing ex-Tories — and has become the de facto home for fiscal and social conservatives who feel the PCs have lost their way in the recent deficit-budget years of Stelmach.

Rick Orman, one of the three candidates eliminated Saturday, said the result was a quasi-victory for the Wildrose. With three progressive candidates left to choose from, said Orman, PC voters who support bedrock conservative ideals like fiscal restraint and small government are left with a clear alternative in the Wildrose.

"The conservative side of the party has fallen off the precipice," said Orman, who was a cabinet minister under former premier Don Getty two decades ago.

"The three remaining candidates are centre-left. Either that's where the party wants to go or the centre-right members of our party have gone somewhere else or are sitting on their hands."

Horner disputed that as simplistic label-gun politics.

"I'm a Progressive Conservative," said Horner. "I view my ideology through the values and principles of the party. What does that mean? It's compassion, integrity, innovation and commitment to excellence."

As the final three begin to beat the bushes anew to sell more memberships, the big question is who the three eliminated candidates will back.

Mar said his camp will be reaching out to the failed candidates.

"We think there are some people we share some things in common with, and we'll be talking about trying to get support of candidates who aren't going on to the second ballot," he said.

Candidates now have two weeks to sell more party memberships and woo support from other candidates before the second ballot.